Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics


Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope



There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.

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4 Responses to “Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics”

  1. philosophicalscraps Says:

    As a graduate student I had the very good fortune to take a class on the virtues with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas.  He described an exercise he did with undergrads where they would be asked to present a real or fictional person whom they admired, and discuss what virtue or virtues that person expressed.  The name that he said came up the most often was Bruce Springsteen.  This was in the 1980s, so albums from “Born to Run” to “Born in the USA” were first in their minds; what moved them was his unflinching honesty in presenting human nature and the challenges of existence, his tearing down of illusions (such as “Born in the USA”‘s undermining of the patriotism that celebrates the nation while neglecting veterans), and his recurring themes of relying on personal relationships with a few significant friends or maybe a lover rather than trusting to society or a transcendent reality.  In short, he said, the students of his day were cynics; but their cynicism was the sort that destroyed falsehoods without having much positive to replace them with.  For the Greeks, the cynical deconstruction of human phoniness was replaced by God; for Thoreau it was the God who is known through Nature; for Chuang Tzu it was the Tao; but in the postmodern world, what is left when you’ve destroyed the illusions?

  2. lila1jpw Says:

    I’m thinking of my Dad, a real nonconformist–had no time for “office politics.” He taught at a post-secondary school and when he caught a student cheating on an exam, he flunked him. The student appealed to the Dean who spoke to my Dad saying, “I cheated when I was getting my degree, didn’t you?” My Dad said, “My degree was more important than that–of course I didn’t cheat.”

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I think Thoreau would say that the world runs on principles, or runs down without them. The dean was in charge of teaching the next generation, and he was himself corrupt, so he’s teaching them corruption. An honest person can slow down that chain reaction, but as long as there are even a few frauds there’s going to be a cancer on the soul of the nation, threatening to metastasize. I’ll bet, though, that the Dean knew how to be civil and polite, particularly to the president of the university.

      At Flagler College I once had a department chair pressure me to change a student’s grade, not over cheating but just because I thought the student’s work was inadequate and he didn’t want the “kid” to be upset. Now that whiner is out teaching actual children, all of whom will whine if their work is failing. A cynic would say that is just as bad. (I will add that at none of the so-called “community colleges” where I’ve taught have I had a department chair who didn’t support me in my grading or my sanctions against cheating; I guess when you’re a humble school you can afford to be honest.)

  3. Nemo Says:

    I definitely would have sided with Diogenes, if I hand’t read the sayings of Aristippus recently. Now I think the latter does have a point: As long as a philosopher has to bow to necessity and obtain sustenance, it makes little difference whether it is from inanimate plants, or sentient human beings. One could argue that it is more fitting and “natural” for us to interact with beings of our own kind.

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